Cutter from Honolulu is guarding coasts on Persian Gulf

Md. Coast Guardsman says versatility makes his branch of service vital

April 05, 2003|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

As coalition forces intensify their pressure around Baghdad, Lutherville native Ryan Smith is fulfilling an unglamorous, yet demanding, role in the Iraq war.

Smith, 21, and his crewmates on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut are charged with cleaning up any oil spills in the Persian Gulf, whether resulting from the war or other causes.

For now, they remain "on call" for whatever needs doing: checking passing vessels for weapons, re-equipping other military ships, refueling a tugboat carrying Iraqi civilians.

"We're needed out here," Smith, a deck seaman, said yesterday in a phone interview from his ship, whose exact location he would not disclose. "With us being versatile, anything that happens, they'll call and ask us to do it. We'll be ready to go."

Six months ago, the Persian Gulf was the last place Smith, 21, expected to be at this time. The 225-foot Walnut is normally based in Honolulu and carries no planes, bombs or missiles. One of its main missions is to patrol waters near Hawaii and ensure that people are abiding by fishing regulations.

But the cutter also has a large crane that can lift up to 40,000 pounds, as well as buoys and lines that can corral anything floating on water, including oil.

When the Walnut's 50-person crew was told in January that it was headed to the Persian Gulf, Smith was not disappointed.

"I was actually excited," said Smith, a 2000 graduate of Loyola High School. "I'm ... young and single. I joined the Coast Guard to make a difference in the world. I wanted to see some action, and here we are going to the Persian Gulf in this war against Saddam Hussein."

The Walnut left Honolulu on Jan. 18 and arrived in the Persian Gulf in the first week of March, stopping in Guam and Singapore along the way.

Smith's main duty is to monitor passing vessels, ensuring that they do not violate United Nations resolutions that bar ships leaving or entering Iraqi waters from carrying anything besides food, medicine and fuel.

Smith is one of a few people who have been trained to climb into ship containers - which can stand as high as 40 feet - and check for violations.

"Essentially he's like a police officer out on the water," said Lt. Rick Wester, 32, a former Rockville resident and the Walnut's executive officer. "Of course, he's always armed with a bulletproof vest, handcuffs, pepper spray."

Smith's mother, Lena Smith, said she naturally worries about her son's safety but is glad he's doing what he loves.

"He feels very proud that whatever their role is, he will make a difference," said Lena Smith, a registered nurse who recently moved to New Hampshire. "When he joined the Coast Guard, he wanted his life to make a difference for someone else. That dream became a reality."

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